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Coping with a Tragedy

Talking to Kids About the News


Updated April 17, 2013

A volunteer sorts through supplies which will be sent to help survivors of the earthquake in Haiti.

A volunteer sorts through supplies collected in Miami and which will be sent to help survivors of the earthquake in Haiti.

Photo by Angel Valentin/Getty Images
Whether it is a school shooting, natural disaster, such as an earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, or a terrorist bombing, special attention must be paid to our children to help them cope and understand what has happened.

A tragedy on the scale of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, school shooting in Connecticut, earthquake in Haiti, terrorist bombings, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, or Hurricane Katrina can be overwhelming for most adults, so how can a child deal with the fears, grief and overall feelings that such a tragedy evokes? Whether they lost a friend or family member, were evacuated from school, or just heard news coverage, many children have been touched by this tragedy and it is important to not allow them to become additional victims.

Viewing images of a natural disaster, such as the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami tragedy in South Asia, or tornadoes in Alabama might be especially distressing for kids, as most of the news coverage of these events has included reports, video, or photos of dead bodies, lost children, and separated families.

How your child deals with a tragic event depends a lot on his age and his overall temperament. A child who is already fearful and anxious will likely have a harder time than other children. Also, a child that has dealt with a recent loss, such as a death in the family, a divorce or other trauma will also likely have more problems.

For many children, especially if they are directly affected by the loss of a family member or friend, professional counseling services should be considered. It can be difficult for parents and other caregivers to have to deal with their own feelings and also know how to do the right things to help their children cope effectively.

How to help your child cope and understand such a tragic event depends on your child's age. For younger children, especially toddlers and preschool age children, it may be best to just insulate your child from the events. Turn off the television or restrict access to channels with news coverage. Many pictures on TV are too graphic for younger children. Even older children should not be allowed to watch news coverage of a disaster by themselves. Instead, allow older children to watch a limited amount of television coverage while accompanied by an adult who can talk about what has happened with the child.

If your younger child has a question, you shouldn't ignore it though. Instead, provide age appropriate and limited facts. If you think your child wants more details, consider asking a follow up question or wait for him to ask additional questions.

Of course, if the child lost someone in the tragedy or was a direct witness, then simply ignoring the tragedy wouldn't be appropriate. In this case, you will have to have more detailed, but still age appropriate, talks with your child. You will also likely have to reassure him that he is safe now.

Younger children also often have 'magical thinking' and may believe that they did something to cause the event. Make sure your child understands that he didn't do anything to cause what happened. Younger children also have a hard time telling the difference between fantasy and reality and may not understand that the 'news' is real.

Remember that talking about the event will not itself cause problems. According to Dr. Paul Coleman, in his book How to Say It to Your Kids, 'Unless the parents or caretakers are willing to talk about the trauma on a regular basis, then the barrier to communication will be a barrier to health. Parents should not conclude that discussing an upsetting event would retraumatize their child. Children need to talk about (or draw or playact) the painful events.'

It is important that your child feels like he has the ability to talk about his fears and worries if he wants to.

While older children will likely have more questions and may want to talk about the 'reasons' for what happened, you shouldn't assume that your child wants a lot of details. It is usually better to find out what your child already knows about the event, ask open-ended questions and follow your child's cues to see how much he wants to talk. If your child doesn't seem to want to talk, you can just offer a simple explanation of what happened and ask if he has any questions or ask a follow up question later.

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